Why Are We Trying to Get Better at Counterinsurgency?

Chris Preble and I have long wondered why American foreign-policy experts believe that “fixing failed states” is important for U.S. national security.  History (and the literature on “state failure”) is replete with dozens of poorly- or ungoverned places that present no threat whatsoever to U.S. national security.  “Failedness” and “threatening” generally are not correlated.

Afghanistan, the one failed state which indeed posed a threat to us, was a problem not because of its educational programs or its agricultural methods, but rather because its government was cooperating with a terrorist group that was planning to attack us.  In order to head off that threat, we didn’t need girls to be in school, a strong national government, or to crack down on poppy production, although if the Afghans want my opinion I think it’s obviously wiser to have girls in school.  (Nay on the other two.)  What would have prevented that threat was killing or capturing the people planning it–a result that would have left Afghanistan just as “failed,” but non-threatening.  So why, if what we’re trying to do is fight terrorism, have we suddenly gotten so gung-ho about nation building and counterinsurgency?

It’s a puzzle that Andrew Bacevich is scratching his head over in reading COIN guru David Kilcullen’s memoir.  It’s worth a read.  (Your only known alternative for insights like these and projections as to what the future holds for U.S. foreign policy in this regard is to come to Chicago to attend Chris’s and my talk at the Midwest Political Science Association convention April 2.)  In lieu of that, give Bacevich a read:

According to a currently fashionable view, the chief operative lesson of the Iraq War is that counterinsurgency works, with U.S. forces having now mastered the best practices required to prevail in conflicts of this nature. Those who adhere to this view expect the Long War to bring more such challenges, with the neglected Afghan conflict even now presenting itself as next in line. Given this prospect, they want the Pentagon to gear itself up for a succession of such trials, enshrining counterinsurgency as the preferred American way of war in place of discredited concepts like “shock and awe.” Doing so will have large implications for how defense dollars are distributed among the various armed services and for how U.S. forces are trained, equipped and configured. Ask yourself how many fighter-bombers or nuclear submarines it takes to establish an effective government presence in each of Afghanistan’s 40,020 villages and you get the gist of what this might imply.

Yet given the costs of Iraq—now second only to World War II as the most expensive war in all U.S. history—and given the way previous efforts to pacify the Afghan countryside have fared, how much should we expect to spend in redeeming Afghanistan’s forty thousand villages? Having completed that task five or ten years hence, how many other villages in Pakistan, Iran, Syria and Egypt will require similar ministrations? And how many more accidental guerrillas will we inadvertently create along the way?

Kilcullen the apostate knows full well that an approach that hinges on wholesale societal transformation makes no sense. The consummate counterinsurgency professional understands that the application of technique, however skillful, will not suffice to salvage the Long War. Yet as someone deeply invested in that conflict, he cannot bring himself to acknowledge the conclusion to which his own analysis points: the very concept of waging a Long War as the antidote to Islamism is fundamentally and irrevocably flawed.

If counterinsurgency is useful chiefly for digging ourselves out of holes we shouldn’t be in, then why not simply avoid the holes? Why play al-Qaeda’s game? Why persist in waging the Long War when that war makes no sense?

When it comes to dealing with Islamism, containment rather than transformation should provide the cornerstone of U.S. (and Western) strategy. Ours is the far stronger hand. The jihadist project is entirely negative. Apart from offering an outlet for anger and resentment, Osama bin Laden and others of his ilk have nothing on offer. Time is our ally. With time, our adversary will wither and die—unless through our own folly we choose to destroy ourselves first.

Napolitano Hearing: Poor Counterterrorism On Display

DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano’s appearance before the House Homeland Security Committee last week provided more than one example of poor counterterrorism and security thinking. But it wasn’t the secretary missing the mark; it was her interlocutors.

First up: Rep. Peter King (R-NY). A New York Times editorial Saturday points out what is at best a gaffe and at worst counterterrorism malpractice from King, the ranking Republican on the committee.

Questioning Secretary Napolitano, King said:

I … notice in your prepared testimony the word “terrorism” is not even used. And I know your absolute commitment to fighting terrorism. I know the president’s commitment to that, and the chairman’s as well.

But I think it’s important for us in positions of leadership to constantly remind people how real that threat is and how it’s an ongoing threat, and if we don’t do it, it’s going to be harder for us to get legislative support for the measures that we think have to be taken.

King is dead wrong, and shamefully so for a person who is supposed to be a leader on domestic security issues.

The government should constantly work to prevent terror threats from materializing, but leadership should not be constantly reminding people about the threats. Leadership should share information dispassionately, and any warnings should be to help Americans secure themselves and the country, not to help drive legislation through Congress.

Terrorism works by inducing overreaction on the part of the victim state. Hyping threats helps terrorism do this work. King’s approach would continue to make the United States a volunteer victim of the terrorism strategy.

Rep. Jane Harman (D-CA) said correctly to Napolitano, “I think your role is to prepare, not scare, the American people.”

Second example: the fantastical misunderstanding of our national ID law exhibited by Rep. Mark Souder (R-IN). Asking Secretary Napolitano about REAL ID, he said:

[T]he Real ID Act has been one of the most critical parts of the ability to do intel tracking. If you don’t know who the person is, if you can’t sort that basic thing out, it’s impossible to get good identification of who — who they’re hooking up with, who — who needs to be monitored for what risk level.

Nobody’s extemporaneous speech ever perfectly reflects their thinking, but Souder appears to believe that REAL ID is designed to provide real-time intelligence. It is designed to do quite a bit less, and would fail at that.

REAL ID would put all Americans into a national ID system and make data about them available for sharing across a network of databases. Over time, it would lead to increased government collection of data about all our movements as we would be asked more and more often to swipe or scan our nationally uniform ID cards.

For all this surveillance of law-abiding citizens, REAL ID would not reveal who terrorists are, nor would it effectively suppress illegal immigration. It holds no hope for defeating the practice of using “clean-skin” terrorists (which was the modus operandi of the 9/11 attacks, with two exceptions). And it would drive illegal immigrants further underground, converting them from hard-working people who have committed minor civil law violations into members of a criminal underclass.

The only way REAL ID could be used for “intel tracking” is if it were required for access to telecommunications, financial services, transportation, and so on. Rep. Souder may imagine a future where REAL ID can do that, but it’s a dystopian future where Orwell’s 1984 has turned from fictional warning to accurate prediction.

These Members of Congress are not acquitting themselves well on counterterrorism and on security generally. Considering that they are members of the committee with a significant chunk of jurisdiction over these issues, they don’t inspire confidence in political leadership generally.

Event This Week at Cato

Tuesday, March 3

12:00 PM (Luncheon to Follow)

POLICY FORUM: Should Government Deliver Comparative-Effectiveness Research – or Can It?

Studies comparing the effectiveness of medical treatments have the potential to reduce health care costs by helping purchasers, such as Medicare, eliminate low-value services. Health care analysts generally agree that current institutions underproduce comparative-effectiveness research, which would seem to be a public good. Many, therefore, want Congress to fund such research. But is market failure really the culprit? And would taxpayer-funded research solve the problem, or would it lead to government rationing? Or would it have no effect on health care costs?

Featuring Shannon Brownlee, Visiting Scholar, NIH Clinical Center, Dept. of Bioethics, and also Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation; Scott Gottlieb, M.D., Resident Fellow, American Enterprise Institute; and Michael F. Cannon, Director of Health Policy Studies, Cato Institute.

Check back here to watch the forum live online.

Switzerland Should Stiff-Arm the IRS

In a classic display of arrogant imperialism, the Internal Revenue Service is running roughshod over existing treaties and demanding that a Swiss bank disgorge confidential client data to American tax collectors. As a former U.S. ambassador to Switzerland warns in the Financial Times, this is a remarkably ill-considered approach to bilateral relations:

When Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf, the Swiss federal councillor in charge of police and justice, meets Eric Holder, US attorney-general, the final item for discussion – according to her ministry’s press release – will be US demands for data on American holders of accounts at UBS, the Swiss bank. …intense anger has…been directed at the US government, which – via the justice department and the Internal Revenue Service – rode roughshod over two bilateral agreements to which it is a signatory. That is, the US ignored formal, negotiated understandings with a long-time friend, a constitutional federal republic where rule of law is enshrined… The Swiss Confederation’s first experience with the new administration is of a superpower exerting raw Goliath power, ignoring its own diplomatic undertakings and taking advantage of Switzerland’s size and the stereotypical misunderstanding of Swiss bank secrecy laws. US authorities are seen in this instance as being once again arrogant and bullying. …UBS and Swiss officials were stunned when the IRS, within days, filed a civil complaint that included a demand for information on 52,000 American UBS customers. A Swiss financial oversight court has ordered UBS not to fulfil this demand. Thus the bank is in the awkward position that its officers would have to violate Swiss banking law to fulfil the US demand.

The more fundamental issue, of course, is how to solve the conflict between America’s bad tax system (with its pervasive double taxation of saving and investment, and its taxation of “worldwide” income) and Switzerland’s admirable human rights policy of protecting financial privacy. The obvious answer is that the U.S. should fix its bad tax system. For instance, the conflict between the U.S. and Switzerland would disappear if the Internal Revenue Code was replaced with a simple and fair flat tax (which taxes income only once and taxes only income earned inside U.S. borders).

If the IRS prevails in this battle, it will be terrible news for people in all nations. As I explain here, here, and here, the ability to escape bad tax policy is a critical restraint on the power of politicians to fleece taxpayers.

School Choice in D.C.: Does Obama Care as Much as Bartlet?

As the Washington Post sternly notes this morning, Democrats in Congress are trying to quietly force nearly 2,000 children back into the D.C. public schools. One parent whose children are using the federally funded D.C. voucher program to attend Sidwell Friends School along with the Obama daughters told the Post, “The mere thought of returning to public school frightens me.” But some people just can’t stand to think that kids might get educated outside the grasp of the government. 

The most honest, decent, and thoughtful Democratic president of modern times, Jed Bartlet, was surprised to find himself supporting vouchers on an episode of NBC’s “The West Wing.” Bartlet’s staff summoned the mayor of Washington, D.C., to the White House to plot strategy for his veto of a Republican-backed bill to provide vouchers for a few students in D.C. schools–and was stunned to discover that the mayor and the D.C. school board president both supported the program, as indeed Mayor Anthony Williams and School Board President Peggy Cooper Cafritz did in real life. Why? the president asked the mayor. “After six years of us promising to make schools better next year,” the mayor replied, “we’re ready to give vouchers a try….We spend over $13,000 per student – that’s more than anywhere else in the country – and we don’t have a lot to show for it.” (As Andrew Coulson wrote recently in the Washington Post, the real cost is actually much higher than that.)

Then the president summons his young personal aide to testify to the merits of D.C. public schools and gets another surprise:

Faced with the evidence, President Bartlet decided to do the right thing. He gave children a chance. Will Congress?

Disincentives to Work — Remember Those?

The president wants to increase taxes only on those earning above $250,000. Since most of us aren’t there — I keep waiting, but for some reason no one yet has offered me what I think I’m worth to express my opinions on current policy and events — who cares, right? 

Well, it turns out that raising taxes reduces the incentive to work. Which hits the rest of us too. Reports ABC News:

A 63-year-old attorney based in Lafayette, La., who asked not to be named, told ABCNews.com that she plans to cut back on her business to get her annual income under the quarter million mark.

“We have to find a way out where we can make just what we need to be just under the line so we can benefit from Obama’s tax plan,” she added. “Why kill yourself working if you’re going to give it all away to people who aren’t working as hard?”

Dr. Sharon Poczatek, who runs her own dental practice in Boulder, Colo., said that she too is trying to figure out ways to get out of paying the taxes proposed in Obama’s plan.

“I’ve put thought into how to get under $250,000,” said Poczatek. “It would mean working fewer days which means having fewer employees, seeing fewer patients and taking time off.”

“The motivation for a lot of people like me – dentists, entrepreneurs, lawyers – is that the more you work the more money you make,” said Poczatek. “But if I’m going to be working just to give it back to the government — it’s de-motivating and demoralizing.”

Now that’s going to help us get out of the recession! Punish hard-working professionals and convince them to cut back services for the rest of us. Great thinking Mr. President.

Or, to paraphrase George W. Bush:  Heck of a job, Barack!

Where Has “War on Terror” Gone? (Long Time Paaassing …)

Who cares? It’s just gone.

On Fox News Sunday this weekend, Chris Wallace pressed the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen, on why the new administration no longer uses the phrase “war on terror.”

Wallace: … a lot of people have noticed that both the president and top advisors very seldom talk about the “war on terror.” Why is that? From your conversations with him, does he see our fight against Islamic radicals differently than President Bush did?

Mullen: It’s very clear in my engagement with him that he is very focused on the terrorist extremist threat. And my guidance is to continue to pursue that in every possible way.

Wallace: Do you have any explanation as to why he doesn’t talk about the “war on terror”?

Mullen: No I don’t. I mean, I don’t. I just told you, what he’s told me to do is focus very specifically on this threat, lead by Al Qaeda. But certainly it’s a top priority to focus on terrorism and terrorists and the extremists that are out there who would do us harm.

Wallace: Last question: As the nation’s top military man, do you believe that you are still leading a “war” against terrorism.

Mullen: There are an awful lot of elements of terrorists and terrorism which threaten us, and we continue to very clearly pursue them. And we will until they’re no longer a threat.

Government officials can use elements of military power against terrorism selectively, appropriately, and in a balanced way if they avoid the “war on terror” metaphor.

Declining to use the needlessly frightening phrase, Admiral Mullen conveys the authority, competence, and confidence that will lead our country back from self-defeating overreaction, which is the terrorism strategy doing its work.

It’s fascinating to see this essential rhetorical shift. It’s benefits might be revelation to some. When will they ever learn?

A rich trove of strategic counterterrorism thinking was on display at our conference on the subject in January.